Newspaper Article 16/10/2022
A month ago, the death of 22-year-old Masha Amini, an Iranian Kurdish girl caused spontaneous protests throughout the country. Approximately 190 people, including 28 children, have reportedly been killed while protests continue unabated; mostly women are leading the demonstrations demanding freedom of choice in the dress code, especially about the mandatory scarf women are supposed to wear when moving in public. Iranian Majlis (parliament) has invited parents to discuss the investigation report about the death of Masha Amini. The issue has attracted international attention, with some western analysts are predicting ominous developments for Iran’s theocratic regime.
For the time being, the unrest is restricted to the hijab issue. It has not turned into a political movement or regime change which the western media is fond of projecting whenever there is unrest in Iran. However, such demonstrations are a cause for concern for the Iranian government; it shows the regime in poor light and challenges its locus as the champion of the Shia revolution in the Middle East.
The hijab, as the Islamic dress code introduced for women, has been the bone of contention between the Iranian clergy and women for many years. Women constitute half of the Iranian population and enjoy a very influential position in Iranian society, especially in the family system. When married, the women retain the name of their fathers. Despite enjoying a powerful role in society euphemistically called Zan Salari (women’s rule), how the Iranian clergy could impose the dress code on them, especially the hijab, is a mystery.
The Iranian revolution has survived over four decades of threats and turmoil. The clergy has been united in steering the country to the theocratic order. At the same time, its Anti-American plank became the rallying point to prolong the rule and keep the nation united. The Iraq war catalysed the consolidation of the revolutionary system in the country. The religious regime did not rely on empty slogans, but delivered on the socio-economic arena. The government has attained a 97 percent literacy rate, while in the health and education sectors, it has made phenomenal progress. In particular, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has designated Iran as number one in the primary health sector, whereby health facilities are available in the country’s remotest areas.
Indeed, the oil wealth sustained the revolutionary dispensation despite international pressures, particularly the American sanctions ever since the clergy came to power. Like any other revolutionary setup, the Iranian revolutionaries tried to export their revolution to the neighbouring countries, including the Persian Gulf monarchies. Iran expanded its influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon by using the Shia card in these countries. It also tried to use the Shia card in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) monarchies, but failed as the latter crushed it in the bud. The support for the Palestinian cause added to the stature of Iran in the Islamic world.
Given the geopolitical importance of Iran in the Middle East region, any unrest in Iran attracts the immediate attention of the media in the West, and its politicians spare no time voicing their support to the Iranian protestors. Whether the Iranian protesters will succeed in changing the hijab dictate or the clergy will have their say is open to debate. Since the ongoing demonstrations are sporadic throughout the country, and almost 80 cities and towns are witnessing protests, it may pose a formidable challenge to the government authorities. The experience shows that the authorities have brutally suppressed such protests and are likely to continue the practice before it gets out of control.
The ongoing unrest in the country manifests the Iranian culture, a vital factor dominating everyday life in Iran, even if the government may boast about implementing the Islamic code of conduct. For instance, the Islamic festivals of Eid-ul Fitr or Eid-ul Adha are non-events in most of Iran, while Nowrouz is celebrated throughout the country with gusto. During the Nowrouz holidays, Iranians prefer to go abroad and enjoy life in countries with easy access to facilities that a western tourist would choose to enjoy. It is again not surprising that for over a century, Iran has been exposed to the culture of the West, and people have happily adopted the western way of life. The introduction of the Islamic code of life, including the dress code, does not evoke a favourable response amongst the people. Therefore, any dictate without the consent of the ordinary people may face resistance whenever an opportunity arises.
The religious authorities in Iran have, over the years, demonstrated flexibility about the dress code in the country, especially when moderate presidents (Rafsanjani, Khatami and Rouhani) were in power. Over the years, one can see a relaxation in the dress code in public places. Except for government officials or spouses wearing chador in public, the rest of the populace is without chador and in modern dresses, although with scarves by the ladies.
Today’s Iran is very different from the revolution’s first two decades when the Iranian moral police coerced the people into submission in the name of Islamic morality. No more one finds the dominance of black chador-wearing women on the streets of Tehran or other major cities. One witnessed the blackening of men’s hands up to the elbow two decades ago as they wore sleeveless shirts during summers; the Moral Police arrested girls showing tresses, but not anymore.
The experience shows that Pasdaran (IRGC) and Basij (voluntary force) have ruthlessly crushed any unrest in the country concerning the economic crisis, unemployment, price hike or dress code. So far, the Iranian authorities have displayed patience in dealing with the demonstrators, despite reports of 190 deaths during the past three weeks. This time, the Iranian officials’ tone is defensive, reflecting a sense of remorse over the killing of a young girl on the scarf issue. In the coming days and weeks, government officials will have to take the stock of the socio-cultural problems festering in Iranian society.
Since international media loves to project anything that may show the Iranian regime in a bad light, such protests assume greater importance in regional and international commentaries about the Iranian system and its stability. The West has tried to dislodge the theocratic order in Iran, but failed. Over the past four decades, the Iranian revolutionaries have consolidated their position and are confident enough to defend the revolution from internal dissent and external instigation.
However, by now, the ruling elite in Iran must have realised that they may have succeeded in establishing a theocratic order. Still, they cannot remove the Iranian culture’s spirit from ordinary people’s hearts and minds. Therefore, the Iranian clergy will have to consider the people’s wishes when it comes to the dress code. Otherwise, recent history shows that all revolutions have failed in the last century.
Note: This article appeared in BOL, dated 16 October 2022.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not necessarily represent Institute’s policy.